Posts Tagged ‘children aboard Amtrak’

Victim of the Rules?

April 29, 2019

When I first read a news story that broke recently about Amtrak putting a teenager off a train in Michigan because her being aboard violated Amtrak rules, I was outraged.

That was particularly the case because the story prominently featured a police officer being critical of Amtrak’s behavior.

The story was disseminated by a Grand Rapids TV station on its website under the headline “Amtrak Strands 13-year-old in Battle Creek.”

But the more facts that I learned about the case the more I realized the passenger carrier was not necessarily being the cold-hearted monster some might think.

The incident began when the 13-year girl from Lapeer, Michigan, boarded the Chicago-bound Blue Water by herself for a trip to visit an uncle in Chicago.

Things were going fine until another passenger asked her how old she was. A conductor asked her the same question.

“The conductor came over and asked my age and I said ‘13’ and he said I was too young to be on the train alone,” the girl told the TV station. “I explained that my uncle was going to pick me up [in Chicago] and they still said that I had to get off.”

Amtrak requires unaccompanied minors between ages 13 and 15 to board at a staffed station and obtain a wristband to wear for the duration of their trip.

Lapeer, though, is an unstaffed station as are most stations served by the Blue Water.

The girl’s mother told WOOD-TV she did some online research and believed her daughter could ride Amtrak alone.

Battle Creek police corporal Joe Wilder was dispatched to the station after Amtrak personnel called police to say they needed assistance with a passenger.

The girl had texted her father about how the conductor planned to put her off in Battle Creek but he was unable to get off work to come get her.

He told WOOD-TV that Amtrak could have put his daughter off at Durand or East Lansing, which would have been closer to her home.

Wilder told the TV station that when he arrived at the station he asked the ticket agent what was going on.

“They basically just laughed at me because I said, ‘What are you doing with this child?’ And they just laughed and thought it was a big joke,” he said. “My biggest issue is they drop this child off, they’re responsible. What if something happened to that child? What if I wasn’t here? It seems like this would be a huge lawsuit or big mess, don’t you think?”

Wilder took the girl to the police station and showed her around while she waited for her mother to arrive.

He said the passenger carrier should have contacted her parents to let them know their daughter was being put off the train in Battle Creek.

“They didn’t even call the parents,” Wilder said. “To me, that just doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Maybe not to a police officer, but it makes sense to me, which is not to say that it was the right or best thing to do.

The Amtrak conductor handled the incident by the book. His job is to collect tickets, oversee the operation of the train, and deal with any other situations involving passengers.

He may later have been reminded by a supervisor to do a better job of checking passengers before they board a train to ensure they are not unaccompanied minors.

When he realized he had an unaccompanied minor on board, he simply enforced Amtrak’s rules.

If anything, he probably believes the girl’s parents should have done more to determine the rules before putting her aboard the train by herself.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said as much in an emailed statement to the TV station.

“When someone of that age is traveling alone and outside those procedures, there is no way for our train conductors to know if they are traveling with the permission of their parent or guardian, if they are a runaway or if they are being trafficked,” Magliari said.

“The safest decision was to transfer the child to a police agency, which is what occurred in this case,” he said.

Officer Wilder doesn’t necessarily disagree with that, but he has experience in being called to the Amtrak station for other incidents.

“We don’t have jurisdiction on the train. They have their own police department that’s supposed to be dealing with this, so I’m not really sure why they use us for a dumping ground, but that’s ultimately what they did,” he said.

I understand the officer’s frustration, but wouldn’t necessarily agree with his assertion that Amtrak police should have handled the situation.

The Amtrak police force is small and the nearest Amtrak officer might be hundreds of miles away from where an incident is taking place.

Magliari also said the Amtrak website states that when purchasing a ticket for an unaccompanied minor, parents must book over the phone and cannot book online.

Just to see how that works, I went through the process of making a reservation on the Amtrak website for a child age 13-15 traveling from Lapeer to Chicago.

The site automatically booked a reservation for the child and an adult. When I tried to remove the reservation for the adult, a warning in red letters popped up directing me to call Amtrak reservations to make reservations for a youth traveling alone.

It would not allow the reservation process to continue unless at least one additional reservation was made for someone 18 or older to travel at the same time.

The girl’s mother said she had purchased her daughter’s ticket online so it is not clear how she got past the red flags. Maybe she bought an adult ticket for her daughter.

Yes, the girl’s parents should have done this or should have done that. Yet I can understand why they did what they did.

They probably figured their daughter would be safe aboard the train. Her uncle would be waiting for her at Chicago Union Station. It wasn’t like she was hitch hiking or relying on a stranger to give her a ride.

Stories such as these surface somewhat regularly and must cause Amtrak’s PR department to cringe.

These stories don’t make the carrier look good but they probably don’t cause long-term or even short-term harm to Amtrak’s reputation.

Magliari acknowledged that the Lapeer station is not staffed. The nearest staffed Amtrak stations are in Detroit, Dearborn or Ann Arbor.

Those are reasonably close to Lapeer, but there are places where the nearest staff station is hundreds of miles away. A parent wanting to put an unaccompanied teen aboard a train might be out of luck. Travel on Amtrak, it would seem, doesn’t work for everyone.